By Bob Hertzel
MORGANTOWN — “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.“ – Mark Twain, after learning that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal.
Forget about burying West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team right now.
I know what you were thinking there in the first half Wednesday night when South Florida was having its way with West Virginia, when Dominique Jones was hitting everything he threw at the rim and the Mountaineers were hitting nothing.
I was thinking it, too. The malaise from the Notre Dame game was hanging heavily over the Mountaineers. Da’Sean Butler’s shot was as bad as it had been in Notre Dame when he hit but 4 of 20 from the field. Kevin Ebanks was still on his extended vacation. Kevin Jones was MIA.
It was enough, at times, to make even Bob Huggins raise his voice, and you know it takes something big, like the sun coming up in the East in the morning, to make that happen.
When the score slipped to 23-12 … well, quite frankly, there were thoughts of beginning this piece like this:
The West Virginia Mountaineers bid for a Big East championship, a high seed in the NCAA Tournament and, perhaps, and NCAA championship came to an end after a brief illness Wednesday night in Tampa, Fla.
The 2009-2010 Mountaineers were just two months old.
They are surivived by thousands of fans and their creator, Bob Huggins.
But, as it was with Mark Twain, the reports of their death were greatly exaggerated.
“I called a time out and said, ‘Do you just want to get down 20 and then start playing like at Notre Dame. Just give me the number we have to get down before you start to play,’” Huggins said after the game.
The resurrection of the Mountaineers began when Da’Sean Butler, of whom it is fair to say as he goes so go the Mountaineers, finally hit a jump shot. Coming off a 4-for-20 shooting performance at Notre Dame, it appeared that he had gone from being a deadeye shooter to a shooter with a dead eye.
But when Butler’s shot went swish in the Florida night, something seemed to set the Mountaineers off on a run that had South Florida wondering if anyone had gotten the license plate number of the Truck that hit them.
Turned out to be No. 25 – Truck Bryant, who hit a free throw, two consecutive 3s and two more free throws before USF’s Jones could score to give the Bulls their last lead of the evening at 27-24. West Virginia would run off six more straight points, then finish the half with two free throws by Ebanks, his first points in a game and a half.
The bleeding now had stopped and at halftime Huggins performed some verbal surgery on his team, sewed them up and sent them out in the second half to prove that they certainly were still hale and hearty.
The defense was simply smothering in the second 20 minutes and, lo and behold, Ebanks came out breathing fire, a rare sight these days.
He scored the first six points of the second half, pushing the lead to double figures, and would continue to torment South Florida until the issue was settled, Ebanks putting an exclamation on the affair with a thunderous tomahawk slam that gave him 17 points to go with his 11 rebounds.
“I’ve just been telling Devin to do what you do. He’s good at attacking the rim. He’s not a 3-point shooter,” Huggins said. “He went back to playing the way he played the second half of last year.”
Most impressive, though, was the zeal with which the walking dead that was WVU at Notre Dame and for much of the first half played with in the second half, especially on defense, holding South Florida to just five field goals and 20 points in 20 minutes.
It reached the point that even Huggins was in a joking mood by the time seldom used reserve Cam Payne went to the free throw line, walking over and telling radio color commentator Jay Jacobs that if Payne hit his two free throws he would match Jacobs’ career point total.
Jacobs, a teammate of Jerry West’s who once claimed that he had West had combined for 44 points in a game, failing to point out that West had 42 of them, had nothing to worry about. Payne missed his two free throws.
Jacobs still holds a comfortbable lead in career points, 11 to 9, over Payne.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com